The field of hypnosis is vast and fascinating, and it’s currently undergoing its greatest boom since the 1880s. From conversational hypnosis and direct hypnosis in hypnotherapy, to stage shows, to impromptu street hypnosis, hypnosis is everywhere! Never before have so many hypnotists been practicing so many kinds of hypnosis.
In this article we discuss conversational hypnosis techniques and principles. It’s a cool topic because only a relatively small number of hypnotists practice it. We hope to change that.
Arguably the greatest hypnotist in history, psychiatrist Milton H. Erickson, was the foremost master of conversational hypnosis, and he developed a lot of unique techniques that we’ll look at. We’ll give you the tools to make it work for you too.
So let’s get started…
What is Conversational Hypnosis?
When you first think of “conversational hypnosis” it tends to sound strange and almost jarring. I mean ... isn’t hypnosis all about putting somebody in a trance so they look like they’re asleep, and then getting them to quit smoking, or perhaps engage in strange behaviours for an audience?
Yes and no.
I say that because there is a lot more to hypnosis than the conventional public perception of having your eyes closed while slumped over in a chair or acting like a fool on stage.
In reality, a skilled hypnotist is able to induce trance and cause change through what is a seemingly ordinary conversation.
This is what we mean by conversational hypnosis. It’s a scientific and systematic method of putting someone in a trance by just talking to them.
In case you’re also wondering about covert hypnosis, it is exactly the same thing as conversational hypnosis. The only difference is, when doing covert hypnosis, you’d be more subtle and you would not openly disclose that you’re doing anything hypnotic.
Why would anyone do covert hypnosis? Because if you need to help someone change and you don’t think they’d be open to a hypnotic experience, you can still help them through conversation that is hypnotic without explaining that it’s hypnotic.
Remember hypnosis is not mind control, and as a conversational hypnotist you can influence people, but you don’t have magical or mysterious powers over them. For more on this here's a video about hypnosis and manipulation.
Conversational Hypnosis Happens Naturally
The first thing to realize is that conversational hypnosis is happening all the time! Just telling someone about your vacation, or talking about your childhood will cause hypnotic trance to develop and fade, like waves on a beach. That’s because trance is a completely normal part of life. We go in and out of hypnotic states all the time, we just don’t typically realize it.
So is it possible for someone to be in hypnosis without being relaxed, and without having their eyes closed?
Yes. That’s because hypnosis, especially conversational hypnosis, is a normal part of life. In fact, we often slip in and out of trance while we are driving, daydreaming, watching television, or a host of other activities.
Netflix is Your Hypnotist!
Think of the last movie or series you watched.
Remember in detail the characters, and everything that happened in the storyline. Notice that, when you think about it now, everything you saw on the screen has expanded to fill your awareness. You don’t think of the screen itself, or the carpet, or the wallpaper, or the dog lying on the floor.
That’s because your experience watching video was hypnotic.
Remember hypnosis is not mind control, and as a conversational hypnotist you can influence people, but you don’t have magical or mysterious powers over them.
When we go into trance we narrow our awareness. In neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), we call this “downtime”. We become less aware of our surroundings, and we become much more aware of our own internal thoughts and feelings. Just daydreaming can be a naturally occurring trance.
So you’re probably thinking: Okay, watching a movie is a kind of hypnosis, but what’s that got to do with conversational hypnosis?
The answer is, it has everything to do with it. One of the ways our brains operate is to respond to a good story. A well-crafted story sweeps us along, as we experience a variety of thoughts and feelings, based on things we’ve already learned.
A Trancy Story…
Here’s an example from my own life. I recommend you read it slowly and deliberately. The use of three dots (...) is used to represent a pause in the verbal delivery. So read this out loud and follow along.
When I was a teenager...my parents had a summer cottage on an island... on the Trent River...in Southern Ontario...and it was a great place in the summer...apart from the insects...but for reasons of their own...my mom and dad insisted...on the inconvenience...of going there in the winter too…
And...naturally...we couldn’t take a boat...over the ice and snow...but loaded up a toboggan with food...and supplies from the marina...and the river was frozen solid...in the Canadian winter...and as my parents and I...got chilled to the bone...we dragged the mound of bags...and boxes...over the 200 yard distance...and I can still hear the ice and snow...crunching underfoot...in the sub-zero weather…
and as the wind ripped right through us...no matter how well we were wrapped-up ...against its power...and I remember...it was always a relief...to reach the opposite shore...where the stark, black, leafless trees...provided a bit of shelter...from the winter elements...and as we shivered uncontrollably...and as my father used a Bic lighter...to melt the ice...from the lock on the cottage door...and as we stepped inside...it was just as cold...but we were out of the wind...and as we passed the gear in...and quickly shut the door behind us...with frostbitten fingers...and as we settled...
...into the cottage...our breath formed an icy white vapour...and as my father got the coal oil heater started...and switched on a couple of electric heaters...it would take at least an hour to warm up to a comfortable temperature...while outside...the snow began to fall heavily...and as huge soft flakes swirled in dense clouds...obscuring the view...across the vanilla ice cream river...my mom was in the kitchen...making huge mugs...of scalding hot tea...and as the heat brought a great comfort...and as the wind picked up...and as the cottage gradually warmed...filling the air with the smell of coal oil...it began to feel cozy...I mean really cozy...and safe...
Hypnosis is an Internal Experience...
Those few paragraphs are a fairly accurate description of the numerous times we braved the elements and crossed the Trent river in the winter. They are a composite, not a single experience. What you read was a mixture of components, put together from a dozen crossings.
But if you read that story slowly and carefully, it gave you an internal experience. You probably would have had some sense of what it was like, based on your own previous memories of similar things, like being somewhere cold and isolated, and wanting to get warm again.
Naturally, because I’m not inside your brain, I have no understanding of what you felt like, or exactly what you imagined. The experience was entirely original to you and generated internally in response to the magical power of words.
And realize that no- one who read those paragraphs will have had the same experience. And nobody who read it will have experienced what my actual river crossing and cottage visit was really like.
That’s because it’s all hypnotic. And it’s hypnosis created through the words of a conversation.
And by hypnotic, I mean it’s the creation of an imaginary experience that is completely different from the outside “real” world. Note again, that this was accomplished entirely through language. The rich verbal descriptions caused you to access similar things that you could relate to, from your own memories.
Suppose instead that I had written this...
My parents and I used to cross the Trent River in the wintertime, and pull a toboggan full of supplies to our cottage. It took an hour for us to warm up.
Not the same experience, right?
It’s not very interesting, because there’s nothing noteworthy or detailed to hang the story on. There’s nothing captivating to draw you in, and create a hypnotic experience unique to you.
On the other hand, the more detailed example used a lot of interesting descriptors. It was designed to draw your attention inward, and that’s where hypnosis takes place.
Words and Metaphor in Conversational Hypnosis
Conversational hypnosis utilizes words to create trance, but does so much more casually than structured and rigid trance inductions. A skilled hypnotist can utilize language to guide a listener into a receptive state, where options may be considered, memories can be accessed, and change can happen.
A classic example of this is the use of metaphor. Metaphor is when one thing stands for something else. A group of raucous lawyers might be called a kindergarten class. A family argument might be referred to as a knife fight, or a nuclear meltdown.
Metaphor is a powerful method of causing change, because our brains have a pattern matching system that automatically finds similarity between different things. If we meet someone we like or dislike on sight, the pattern matching of the fusiform gyrus in the brain has found someone in our personal history that this person reminds us of.
Words can do the same thing.
When we tell a story that is rich in metaphor, our unconscious minds find similarities between the story and our own situation at that time. The result might be an instant understanding of a solution to a problem, or an insight into our relationships.
This is because it’s the way our brains naturally work.
The Power of Hypnotic Symbols
Symbolism also fits well into the category of metaphors. There are many symbols of the unconscious mind itself, that are cross-cultural.
The moon, a pond of still water, a mirror, a forest, are all unconscious symbols. When we drop them into our stories, the subject’s deep mind begins to take notice.
Spooky gothic-style stories are filled with specific symbols designed to create anticipation and tension. This is what makes the stories enjoyable.
You’ll often find elements like stormy nights, run-down castles on windswept cliffs, lonely lighthouses in thick fog, and waves crashing on rocks. There are often mysterious travellers on night-trains, washed-out roads, phones that don’t work, and stranded guests thrown together in strange circumstances. Sometimes you’re told about escaped convicts, lights in the windows of deserted asylums, and missing family members...
If you took the time to read that last paragraph carefully, it would have caused what we call resonance. All of those creepy elements would compound with each other and create a spooky feeling or unsettling emotion.
And once we create an emotion, hypnosis is never very far away...
The Never Ending Sentence in Conversational Hypnosis
A skilled hypnotist can intentionally create trance during a “normal” conversation. He or she can then redirect the attention of the subject to the solution to a problem, or help the listener access more resourceful states.
This is accomplished entirely through a natural sounding conversation.
One of the clever techniques is to use what we call the never ending sentence. This just means that once you start talking, you don’t stop. You’ll pause in the right places, and you’ll connect your words artfully. But the sentence never actually ends.
And it’s quite hypnotic.
That’s because whenever someone speaks to us, we immediately begin attaching meaning to their words. This meaning comes from our understanding, based on all we have learned, and our personal experience.
When we hear the end of a sentence, it feels complete and resolved. But when the sentence goes on...and on...and on...without resolution, we go deeper and deeper into attempting to find meaning.
If you scroll back and again read my experience at our family cottage in the winter, you’ll notice that periods are conspicuous by their absence. The description goes on and on, drawing you into the web of the story and your own internal experience that the description gives you.
An easy way to begin using the never ending sentence is to link your words together with:
And as you read this…and notice where you’re comfortable...and as you wonder exactly where this is all going...you can begin to feel more relaxed...and as you might decide to gently adjust your position...it’s simple to enjoy feeling very much at ease…
This is a great way to send the subject’s mind into downtime, where there is just so much language to consider, that it’s hard for him to get his head around the meaning of it all.
The longer the sentence, the more complex the meaning becomes.
There are lots of other words like “and as” that we call linkages. Words and phrases such as...while...because...although...and when...and if...and yet...are great ways of creating beautifully long hypnotic sentences.
Conversational Hypnosis is Maternal Rather than Paternal
Conversational hypnosis is very indirect or maternal.
Whereas a stage hypnotist might be highly directive; even commanding, conversational hypnosis is much more laid back. We say the stage hypnotist typically uses a paternal approach, whereas the conversational hypnotist is much more maternal.
And this is true no matter whether the hypnotist is male or female. It’s the approach we are talking about, not the gender of the hypnotist.
A paternal approach often involves using a loud voice and an authoritarian demeanor. This type of hypnosis might involve commanding the subject to attempt to open his eyes - only to find it to be impossible. Dave Elman was famous for this style of hypnosis.
Also, any style of hypnosis that involves formal suggestibility tests, is following the direct model.
On the other hand, a more maternal approach may involve the hypnotist simply wondering…
Are you still able to open your eyes...or will they remain closed...?
In either case, the expected end result is a subject who cannot open his eyes, which have become stuck shut.
You must understand something though. Very few methods of hypnosis are exclusively maternal or paternal. Some stage hypnotists gently lull subjects into trance, in a way that can only be called maternal. The highly directive commands of the paternal style may come much later in the show.
That’s because maternal, or indirect hypnosis is all about offering artfully vague language full of possibility. There is nothing to resist.
Similarly, conversational hypnosis must be done in a way that gives your subject nothing to fight against … nothing to resist.
In reality, permissive maternal hypnosis and directive paternal hypnosis are not opposite sides of a coin. They are actually on a continuum, and a skilled hypnotist can lean toward either end of the scale as needed.
Hidden Hypnotic Commands that Slip Past the Doorman of the Mind
One of the most amazing techniques used in conversational hypnosis, is the use of embedded commands. Embedded commands are a covert way of getting suggestions into the mind of your subject.
Typically, a part of the mind known as the Critical Faculty acts like the firewall on a computer. It prevents information from affecting the subject, much like a doorman keeps unwanted people out of a nightclub.
Embedded commands are a way of slipping past the man on the door without him even noticing it’s happened. The information goes directly into the unconscious mind undetected.
Hypnotists believe that the unconscious mind (some prefer subconscious) stores all of our life experiences, and is simultaneously monitoring all of our body systems, and keeping track of our surroundings.
The unconscious mind is much more aware than our conscious minds, and this is where real and lasting change takes place.
Embedded commands function at an unconscious level.
Basically, an embedded command is a hidden hypnotic command. It’s a fragment that is concealed within a larger sentence.
For example: If I wish to direct someone into a trance, I might conceal the embedded command: Fall into a trance in a longer sentence like this…
I find myself wondering...if it’s going to be an easy thing, for you to fall into a trance as you sit there…
The key to embedding a command is to do something known as Analog Marking. This means to mark out the command by saying it in a way that it stands out from the rest of the words.
- You might say it slightly louder than the other words.
- You might look directly into the eyes of the person as you embed the command.
- You might touch the person as you say the command part of the sentence.
- You might pause slightly before saying the embedded command.
The key is to be both subtle enough that the subject doesn’t notice the command consciously, but mark it enough that the unconscious does notice it.
Obviously, this takes some practice, but it’s not as difficult as you might imagine.
Say the following paragraph out loud. As you read it, drop your voice a bit as you say the words in bold type.
So you can sit there...and feel very comfortable...and maybe even close your eyes when you’re ready...and it’s very simple for you to fall into a nice trance...as you listen to the words I’m giving you...it’s very simple to just drift away...and continue to breathe...and relax...and when you’re ready...you can sleep now…
Do you begin to get an idea of how cleverly subtle this is?
Many years ago I began to experiment with embedded commands during my stage shows. At one performance, I remember the subjects were slumped over in their chairs and some were lying on the floor.
I said something like:
And you’re fully aware...of all the surroundings...and very comfortable where you are...as you relax completely…
To my amazement, the entire group suddenly sagged as their bodies relaxed and they went deeper.
Did You Know?
A Brief History of Embedded Commands
In 1930, Dr. Milton H. Erickson joined the staff at Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts, USA. He was a psychiatrist with a keen interest in hypnosis.
He worked with schizophrenic patients who, he noticed, would speak in "word salad". They'd say things that made no apparent sense. He eventually discovered that there were often understandable, logical statements embedded in this "word salad".
Erickson got the idea for embedded commands from this experience. To test out his own “word salad”, Erickson encountered a hospital secretary. She would regularly suffer from severe migraines during the onset of menstruation, and she had a migraine during this experiment.
Erickson insisted this secretary perform dictation, which was common in this day. There were no tape recorders back then! She reluctantly sat down to do her job. Erickson embedded commands in the middle of his word salad. She certainly didn’t notice the commands consciously. She was too busy writing down his words to think about them.
After 15 minutes she interrupted Dr. Erickson to excitedly tell him something. Her migraine was gone!
Offering options is one of the most powerful conversational methods you can use. By offering different ways for the subject to respond, it becomes impossible for him to do it wrong.
A highly directive hypnotist might say “Your hand is rising in the air! It’s rising higher and higher!” But if it doesn’t rise, it will be interpreted as failure, or worse, that the person is being resistant, or is a “bad subject”.
A conversational hypnotist offers a variety of options for the subject to consider. She might say “...and your hand may rise...or sink down even more relaxed...or it may do nothing at all…”
Notice that in this case, there is no way the subject or hypnotist can possibly fail. That’s because options permit the subject to respond as he sees fit.
Remember where we talked about the difference between covert hypnosis and conversational hypnosis? If you’re speaking about the possibility of a hand rising, you’re probably not doing covert hypnosis. If your client or subject knows you’re doing something hypnotic it’s totally fine to direct their attention to their hand in this way.
Your Intention: Game Changing in Conversational Hypnosis
Intention is one of the most subtle but powerful hypnotic techniques. It’s literally a game-changer when it’s used correctly. Intention is activating your will to intend the hypnosis to work.
This doesn’t mean dominating the other person, or having a battle with their mind. It does mean focusing on the subject intently, and believing it will work.
There were a lot of B movies made in the 1950s and 1960s that featured the king of the vampires, Dracula. The films featured a lot of creepy close-ups of his eyes and he would dominate people with his will. Intention is kind of like that, but you’ll have to dial it down a lot!
Creepy is bad.
One way to do this is a trick from Milton H. Erickson, called looking expectantly at the subject. By engaging the subject with your will and looking at him as though you expect something to happen, you’ll be exercising your intention.
Create Vague Language with Nominalizations
Another one of the methods in this kind of hypnosis is the use of words known as nominalizations.
A nominalization is a noun that has no physical properties. You can’t put it in a wheelbarrow, because it’s a concept, not a thing. Examples include: Happiness, strength, resistance, understanding, empowerment, learning, etc.
Nominalizations get their power because they mean something different to everyone. If I use the word success, it will mean something different to everyone, based on their life experiences, and their values; what’s important to them.
For one person, success might mean running three multimillion dollar companies. For someone else, it might mean having a job they can go to every day.
When we salt our conversations or stories with nominalizations, the person we are speaking with has to go inside to apply meaning to the words. As soon as they consider their own meaning, they will experience various emotions as a result.
Politicians and corporate executives are widely known for speaking this way despite never being formally trained in hypnosis. In the corporate world it's often called "management speak" to use a lot of works while saying essentially nothing. And it works wonderfully provided there is a good relationship, or rapport, between speaker and listener. We'll cover rapport in more detail below.
Emotion Makes Hypnosis Easy
Emotions are your primary tool to pave an easy street towards hypnosis. Our friend, the brilliant hypnotherapist Freddy Jacquin, says, “Create an emotion and give a suggestion.”
When we experience powerful emotions, we become very open to external suggestions, and we typically are not consciously aware of how open we are. This is hypnotic. This is conversational hypnosis in action.
Okay, so we’ve looked at how conversation that is filled with detail and nominalizations can be hypnotic; especially when accompanied by strong emotion. But how do you actually do conversational hypnosis?
Calibration and Noticing Trance
My mentor, the late Derek Balmer, used to say, “You can’t see what you can’t see.”
What he meant was, you can’t see what you’re not looking for.
When someone goes into trance, they begin to exhibit a lot of what we call external trance indicators, or ETIs. These are subtle and not so subtle behaviours and signs that hypnosis is beginning to happen. If you’re unaware of ETIs or not looking for them, they’ll fly right past you.
You have to calibrate the subject.
Calibration means noticing the baseline before you proceed. You do this simply by noticing all that you can notice and taking a mental snapshot of the subject. This can include position, facial expression and posture. You can literally do this in an instant. You’ll get better as you practice.
Calibration applies equally to highly directive paternal hypnosis, and also to conversational hypnosis.
Once you have an overall impression of the subject, you’re well equipped to calibrate any changes that tell you that trance is occurring. If you don’t calibrate, you’re essentially doing hypnosis in the dark.
Years ago, I watched a hypnotist working with a subject who went in and out of trance repeatedly, but the hypnotist never noticed, because she was completely focused on her induction!
I was in the audience. I watched the external trance indicators, (ETIs) form and fade. The hypnotist didn’t seem to notice because she barely looked at her subject!
Remember: You can’t see what you’re not looking for!
Here’s a short list of the sort of external trance indicators that are very common:
- Deeper breathing, or any breathing shifts
- Twitching muscles
- Head tipping forward
- Eyelids fluttering
- Lower lip seems to increase in size
- Eyes unfocused and staring
- Blink reflex slows or stops completely
- Eyes reddening or tearing
- Slower response to what you say or ask
When you see a number of trance indicators, and if you have rapport, you might only have to say eyes closed now...and the subject will drop into trance.
I’ve put people into trance like this, literally hundreds, if not thousands of times.
Rapport is a sense of connectedness between the hypnotist and the subject. It causes the subject to feel both understood and valued.
It’s sometimes described as:
Entering the other person’s model of the world.
One of the most powerful things you can do in conversational hypnosis is to build and maintain strong rapport.
People who are in rapport with each other feel connected. It’s something that good friends do automatically and naturally. They are in what’s known as a psychodynamic loop with each other, constantly affecting each other as they interact.
They laugh at the same things, make the same gestures, have the same posture, and even use the same words. We say that rapport is the glue that holds friendships, and trance, together.
When we have rapport, we feel similar to the other person, and we all like people who are a lot like us. That’s because we see ourselves as normal. Therefore, if someone seems similar to us, they are trustworthy because they are normal too.
When you have rapport, the sky’s the limit in what you can do with hypnosis. And when you don’t have it, you’ll feel like you’re banging your head on a wall, trying to make things happen.
There are several techniques to gain and maintain rapport. We’ve already mentioned that people in rapport with each other use the same words. You can use this information by offering back the other person’s language without interpreting.
If the person says they’re feeling overwhelmed by life, you can use those same words a bit later in the conversation to build rapport. This is called pacing their language.
If instead you interpret what they said, telling the person that you understand they’re feeling “frazzled” you’ll likely break rapport.
It’s easy to pace all sorts of things. You can match their posture, head tilt, blink reflex, facial expression; just about any behaviour. The key is to be subtle so they don’t consciously notice that you’re pacing them. By pacing their behaviour, you’ll build a very strong rapport.
The simplest way to build rapport is to pretend that your subject is the most fascinating and important person you’ve ever met. If you keep doing this, the mirror neurons in your brain will do the rest automatically.
That’s because when we give someone our full attention with curiosity and fascination, it makes them feel highly valued and listened to, which is a very good thing, and something we all want!
Rapport is so important, it goes way beyond hypnosis. It’s actually a vital skill to have a good life. By intentionally building rapport with other people, you’ll find that you’re liked and valued by others, and your hypnosis abilities will soar too.
Putting it all together...
So now you know that all conversation is hypnotic to some degree.
In order to make it work for you, there are several things to remember:
- Make sure you have rapport with the subject. Rapport is the glue that holds trance together, and without it, your subject won’t go into, or stay in trance.
- Fixate the subject’s attention with riveting stories.
- Add metaphors and symbolism to enrich what you’re saying.
- Use your intention, by looking expectantly at the subject.
- Remember to engage the subject’s emotions, which are a gateway to hypnotic trance.
- Calibrate so you can see change happening.
- Use linkages and never ending sentences and layer in nominalizations.
- Offer options instead of commands
Of course, it’s going to take some practice to get fluid with conversational hypnosis. You can work with just one or two principles at first, and then add others as you become more confident.
There is a way to fast track things though, and dramatically speed up your progress as an expert conversational hypnotist.
The hack is called NUVI, which stands for Nominalization, Unspecified Verb Induction. It’s a method I developed a few years back to teach my students how to do Ericksonian hypnosis.
Regardless of the complex name, NUVI is actually quite simple to learn and apply. It is now my go-to whenever I teach hypnosis to my students, either online, or in live classes. It just makes things much simpler.
You too can learn the language of conversational hypnosis easily and in your spare time. I’ve created the NUVI app that makes it simple to practice. The app comes with a 45 minute training video too, and best of all:
Get the Free NUVI Video Course
The course is free. It's about 45 minutes long. It's perfect for learning conversational hypnosis. Ideal for beginners or experienced hypnotists who want better fundamental skills. Your email address will be your login name, so spell it properly. We will send you login instructions immediately.